HL Deb 04 February 1969 vol 299 cc110-30

7.38 p.m.

LORD MOLSON rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether the decision of the Minister of Housing and Local Government to allow the demolition of certain houses in New Street and the Market Place in Chipping Norton represents a departure from its previous policy as stated in Circular 61/68 dated 4th December, 1968. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in a letter dated January 2, in which the Minister of Housing and Local Government indicated that he was prepared to acquiesce in the destruction of certain houses, he referred to Chipping Norton as an "historically important Cotswold town." In the same letter he mentioned that the Council for British Archælogy regards it as exemplifying a well-preserved ancient town plan, still containing a number of attractive old houses and buildings. That is why the Georgian Group and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings are particularly indignant that acquiescence should be shown by the Minister in the destruction of these buildings. The Minister also emphasised that this is a town specially deserving of conservation under the provisions of the Civic Amenities Act.

The proposal to which the Minister has agreed is to demolish a number of typical old houses—not perhaps of outstanding architectural or historic merit, but nevertheless charming houses, and again, in the words of the Minister: "at least one, namely, No. 11 Market Place, of statutory list quality". And all this is to be done for the purpose of road widening. The argument is that this widening of the road will make for road safety. It is not contended for a moment that it will be a satisfactory or permanent solution: it is merely a temporary expedient. It is not clear that it will in fact reduce the danger of accidents.

Eighty per cent. of the traffic using this road is through-traffic. That was shown in a traffic survey organised by the Oxfordshire County Council. The effect of doing away with these houses will of course be to encourage even more through-traffic to pass through Chipping Norton, and it will be able to do so at an increased speed. It is not at present a dangerous place. The county surveyor has given us the figures of the accidents during the last few years. The accidents were: In 1957, one slight one; in 1958, one slight one; in 1959, two of which one was serious; in 1960, three of which two were serious. In 1961, 1962 and 1963, there were no traffic accidents at all; in 1964, there was a slight one; in 1965, there was none, and in 1966 there were two slight accidents. And, my Lords, 7,000 vehicles use that road every day.

I am not unduly impressed by the pressure of the Ministry of Transport for the widening of this road. I was myself for two and a half years Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport. I was Chairman of the Road Safety Committee; and deeply concerned I was to reduce the number of accidents, especially the particularly tragic accidents to children. But I was not of the opinion that facilitating rapid transit of through-traffic in built-up areas was the best way of reducing the danger of accidents of that kind. As you go about London, your Lordships must have noticed in how many cases pavements have been extended at corners, not to facilitate easy movement of vehicles but to obstruct them. That is done in order to reduce the number of accidents and the gravity of the accidents that take place. There may often be buckled mudguards in a congested area, but because vehicles find it impossible to travel at a great pace there is a comparatively small number of fatal, or even serious, accidents.

The Minister, in his letter of decision, said that this widening of the road was not a solution, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, emphasised this when answering a Question in this House on January 29. He said: … a relief road to take through-traffic … is the ultimate solution for Chipping Norton's traffic problems".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29/1/69, col. 1163.] When he was further pressed upon the subject he came back to the same point and said: … as I said in my original reply that"— and "that" is a by-pass… is the only proper solution; but unfortunately it is a somewhat long-term solution and in the meantime the risk was unacceptable."—[Col. 1165.] I have contended that there was no great risk in the short period and the experience of the last ten years shows that that is so.

The demolition is to take place before the conservation survey. Irreparable damage will therefore have been done before we know whether or not it is necessary. That is what is being done. That is the policy to which the Minister has given his agreement. The purpose of this Question is to ask whether and how the Minister reconciles this with Circular 61/68 dealing with the new Town and Country Planning Act. This was sent out to all local authorities as a guide on how they were to act. In paragraph 8 of this Circular the Minister directs local authorities to notify specified persons of any application for consent to the destruction of listed buildings. He goes on to give a number of bodies who are to be notified—the Ancient Monuments Society, which objects to this proposal; the Council for British Archeology, which objects to this proposal; the Georgian Group, which objects to this proposal; the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which objects to this proposal; the Victorian Society, which objects to this proposal; the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments, England, which objects to this proposal.

Then, in paragraph 6, the Minister gives guidance to the local authorities as to how they are to conduct themselves: Local authorities should be specially vigilant for preservation."… the authority concerned here is the Oxfordshire County Council. As owners of many listed buildings themselves, they should set an example to other owners: and in this there have been too many failures—some of them flagrant. The houses that are going to be demolished have been acquired by the Oxfordshire County Council. This Circular also refers to an earlier Circular that was sent out, dealing with the Civic Amenities Act. In paragraph 14 of Circular 53/67 the Minister said: … the Government and local authorities have a special responsibility in this matter, not only because the powers of control are in their hands, but also because they are themselves the owners of many listed buildings"— as the Oxfordshire County Council is the owner of these listed buildings in Chipping Norton— and thus able to set an example to other owners".


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would yield for a moment. Although the local authority owns the buildings, they are not listed.


Just to complete my quotation: They lay particular emphasis on this last point". On January 29 the Parliamentary Secretary said, at col. 1163: … this corner is a pleasant part of the townscape, although only one of the houses to be demolished is listed as being of special architectural or historic interest". That is what the noble Lord is reported in Hansard to have said.


My Lords, I think it may be for the assistance of the noble Lord and the House if I say now what I would have said later, which is that in saying that I inadvertently misinformed the House. There are no listed buildings at all in this group of houses. The one in question, No. 11 Market Place, is of listable quality but has not been listed. I shall be explaining the circumstances later.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to the Parliamentary Secretary for correcting me, or shall I say for correcting himself, because in point of fact that is what he said and I thought it permissible to quote it. I do not think that in substance it matters very much whether the building in question had been listed, which means that it had been approved for the purpose by the Minister, or whether it was of listable quality and had been recommended by an inspector for that purpose. In point of fact, I think what happened was that it had been recommended for listing but the legal pro- cedure had not been carried out. That does not seem to me to be a matter of the greatest substance, but I am glad now to know that I should describe it as of listable quality and not as listed.

Paragraph 3 of Circular 61/68 says —and this is particularly important because I have not claimed that these buildings are of really outstanding quality; nobody has suggested they are in Category 1 for listing: In some cases a building may be important because there are only a few of its type in the neighbourhood; while in other cases its importance may be enhanced because it forms part of a group or series. Attention should also be paid to the contribution made by a building, particularly in conservation areas, to the local scene;… That exactly and precisely covers the case of these buildings which, without being individually of outstanding merit, are a harmonious and attractive part of a town which the Minister has insisted upon being considered for conservation purposes.

In paragraph 12 the Minister says this: It is being increasingly appreciated by all concerned with preservation that to decide on the preservation of individual buildings is not enough. In the first place, preservation of buildings must be related to their environment, in the sense both of the immediate townscape and of the area or town of which they form part. It is for this reason that local authorities have been empowered to designate conservation areas under the Civic Amenities Act 1967. In paragraph 18 the Minister calls upon local authorities to co-operate with voluntary bodies, and says: … local authorities should co-operate with voluntary bodies, both national and local, concerned with the protection of historic buildings and the preservation and enhancement of amenities. I have already quoted the amenity societies which were to be consulted before any demolition took place, and I have indicated that without a single exception they are opposed to what the Minister is doing on this occasion.

It has been argued that the houses in question are no longer of great interest or value because they are in a state of decrepitude. That is of course the result of the neglect and negligence, if not deliberate neglect, of the county council. The Minister, in his Circular, which was very comprehensive and farsighted, referred to just this kind of thing when he said: The destruction of listed buildings is very seldom necessary for the sake of improvement; more often is the result of neglect, or of failure to appreciate good architecture. My Lords, the promise of the Oxfordshire County Council to undertake a conservation study has been accepted by the Minister as a reason for authorising the demolition of these houses which, in the opinion of all the amenity societies mentioned in Circular 61/68, ought to be preserved. This seems to me to be so completely illogical and irrational that I can hardly believe that it was inadvertently done by the Minister. I can hardly feel that, after he had issued a statement of policy on the lines of this Circular, he could have authorised a destruction which was so completely at variance with all these different pieces of advice which he had given to local authorities. I therefore feel that this must represent a change in the policy of the Minister, and I shall be very glad indeed to be assured that that is not so.

7.58 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say, to begin with, that it is a shame that such an important subject as this should have to be taken so late in the evening after a heavy day's work and in such a thin House. It is much too late to give to this important circular the attention which it deserves, although my noble friend Lord Molson has certainly brought out some of the important matters which derive from it. There are two points involved here, as he has pointed out to your Lordships. The first is the serious damage which is going to be done to this delightful and historic town of Chipping Norton; but the other is the more important one—and it is this, really, which during these last three or four weeks since the Minister's decision on the matter was published has been worrying all the amenity societies, not only the ones to which my noble friend has referred, which are specifically mentioned in the circular, of course, but the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the other organisations which are very much concerned with the protection of the beauties of our land, both town and country.

This is an important circular. This part of the Act, which we passed through Parliament only last year, was hailed as an important addition to the strength of the amenities movement, and the circular from the Ministry from which the noble Lord has quoted, which was issued at the beginning of December, on the face of it appeared to be a well argued and promising document which, to any ordinary person reading it and taking it at face value, would have conveyed the impression that the Ministry was now to take a serious line about this sort of thing. It starts by, in effect, saying that historical England is disappearing rapidly, that the local authorities must bear a good deal of the responsibility for it and that the time has now come, and come very emphatically, when this situation must be brought to an end. Action is called for now, at the very beginning of this important circular, or these ancient, historical and attractive towns will disappear from our country.

It was emphatically expressed, very well expressed and very well received by all the organisations of people who spend their lives struggling to protect the beauties of England—and then, within a month, the Minister deliberately destroys the foundation on which that is built up. Everybody now considers this to be the usual thing: gobbledy-gook; just words. When faced with the acid test of an important historical town, a town which goes back to the time of the Anglo-Saxons, a town which was important in the time of Alfred the Great, he destroys, or gives the local authorities power to destroy, the centre of that important town. How can we rely any more on this circular, on the Ministry and on the Minister having the serious intention of implementing this Act of Parliament to which we gave so much time, both in the Lower House and in your Lordships' House, only a few months ago?

Those really are the points which are raised. I should like to discuss them at some length, but there is obviously no time, and I must content myself with making three or four points as shortly as possible. Two which I shall make are in respect of the town of Chipping Norton itself. I hope not to cover too much of the ground that has been already covered by the noble Lord. Lord Molson. The others are of a more general character, for the purpose of which I take Chipping Norton as an example of the sort of thing which may be happening all over the country if other local authorities model themselves upon this—dare I say it?—dastardly conduct of the Oxfordshire County Council, in the expectancy that ministerial control will be equally supine.

Reading through all the papers that have been put before me in this case I gather, as the noble Lord. Lord Molson, apparently gathered, that the Oxfordshire County Council are the villains in this piece. I come to very much the same conclusion myself. It would be obvious to any sensible person looking at this situation that the only solution to the traffic problem of Chipping Norton is a by-pass road. Indeed, the Minister says so in his decision; but he says that it is going to be two or three years before that can happen and, that being so, that he is content for the sake of two or three years to see the Chipping Norton centre destroyed, because it is dangerous. That is a flimsy case. It is clear from the figures produced by the Oxfordshire County Council itself that it is not dangerous. It is true that in 1959–60 there were two or three serious accidents, but that is all over a period of more than ten years.

Obviously, at the time of those serious accidents the scheme for this destruction originated in the minds of the road enginer for Oxfordshire and his staff. This scheme has been gathering force ever since. This is clear from the documents. When this business came into the light of day in 1967, very nearly two years ago, it was then said that it would be about five years before the by-pass road could be completed. We are in the way of having exhausted two of those years—only three are left according to the figures then given—and the argument is based simply on this minute number of accidents, because no other argument has been produced and the Minister himself, in answer to the Starred Question last week, produced nothing except this. When the noble Viscount, Lord Esher, from Oxford brought out clearly that the accident rate was negligible, he really was unable to answer the point. Therefore I say, in the first place, that it really is a crime that, for the sake of saving two or three years in getting this by-pass ready, this beautiful and ancient town should be subjected to destruction in this way.

It is clear, as has been said before, that the County Council, having made up their mind some years ago to get this thing through, were prepared to stick at nothing in order to get it done. At the beginning they wanted to do it by means of compulsory purchase; then they discovered that they could prevent an inquiry if they could enter into a contractual arrangement with the owner of this property to purchase it. So they purchased it. In that way, so far as they were concerned, and so far as the Minister of Housing and Local Government was concerned, they evaded inquiry. But the local people who were vigilant for the protection of Chipping Norton then went to the Ministry of Transport—which is very often the villain of the piece on occasions like this. But the Minister of Transport looked at it and said, "This is a case for an inquiry". It is significant that in the autumn of 1967 the Minister of Transport actually ordered a public inquiry. Then, somehow, during the next few months, as a result of the fact, brought to his attention, that the County Council had purchased the property, he then decided that an inquiry was not necessary; and the decision that there should be an inquiry was revoked by the Minister early in the spring a year ago. This again, I think, is very significant because it shows that the Oxfordshire County Council were really prepared to stick at nothing in order to get this plan of theirs carried out.

I think that this business about the inquiry is a very important matter indeed, because if ever there was a case where it was essential that there should be an inquiry, where it was essential that the pros and cons of this matter should be argued out, with proper evidence being given before an impartial inspector, this is the case. Here we have a new Act of Parliament to be implemented; here we have an important Ministerial circular isued; here we have the very first case raised under that new Act of Parliament and, under that new circular, a case in which, if the Minister himself, on the papers before him, had decided that there was a proper case for the clearance to go ahead, he should nevertheless have held an inquiry in order that everybody else should be satisfied.

There is an important clause in the circular in which it says that public opinion should be borne in mind and that there should be the involvement of the people concerned. I am not sure that the noble Lord, Lord Molson, referred to it, but it is a very interesting and important, and, I think, very significant paragraph. After a reference to "the importance of good public relations", the paragraph (it is No. 18 on page 7) proceeds: The Minister wishes again to emphasise the importance of securing the greatest possible measure of public participation. My Lords, how do you get this if you go about it in this hole-and-corner way, persuading one Ministry after another not to allow a public inquiry? It is impossible to get public participation unless there is a public inquiry. I suggest that it was a very serious mistake on the Minister's part to decide that a public inquiry was not necessary. As we have often been told, it is just as important that justice should be seen to be done as that it should in fact be done, and I think it was a gross error of judgment on the part of the Ministry and the Minister to decide in this first case when this Act of Parliament was going to be used and this Circular brought into effect, that an inquiry was unnecessary.

Obviously—or so I should have said if he had not in effect said that it was not so—the deduction I should have made was that the Minister who is answering for the Government to-night took the same point of view, because when the matter was taken up with him by the local Member of Parliament he very properly said that nothing would be done until a "conservation study" had been made, and the need for a conservation study in cases of this kind—


My Lords, I am very interested to hear the noble Lord's account of what I said to the Member of Parliament. How does he know?


My Lords, because it has been reported. It may be that the Member of Parliament gave a wrong interpretation of what was said to him by the Minister, and the Minister will have the opportunity of explaining what in fact happened. But whether he said it or not, I suggest to your Lordships that this was obviously the sort of case where a "conservation study" was absolutely essential and they had not even begun on it. In the Answer which the Minister gave to the Question only last week he said that the county council had promised that during the year they would do a conservation study. During the year! After these houses have all been pulled down and a very important part of the conservation study is no longer of any interest or use to anybody, then they will get on with the conservation study. I suggest that this is really an outrageous way to go about the preservation of these ancient houses which the Minister is drawing to the attention of local authorities as so necessary and so important.

Obviously, my Lords, that is what ought to have been done. A conservation study ought to have been made and got on with, and it should then have been brought before an inspector at a public inquiry so that the people concerned and interested in this matter should have had the opportunity to give their evidence in public on both sides and of being subjected to examination and cross-examination. The whole matter should be properly argued out instead of being dealt with in this hole-and-corner way as has been described to us to-night.

I will not take up more of your Lordships' time. Obviously, the best way in which the Minister could prove to the country that he is in earnest about the implementation of the Act and about the carrying through of the terms in the Circular which he has sent round to all the local authorities would be to revoke this decision which he has made. I am not sure that the Minister has the power to do so now. In the regulations at which I have been looking, there is a power on the part of the local authority, with the consent of the Minister, to revoke an Order which has been made in respect of a listed building. But whether the Minister himself still retains that power is not at all clear. Having once given his decision, I doubt whether he can withdraw it. But if he can, the best way in which he can convince the country that he is serious about this would be to withdraw the Order at once. If he cannot withdraw his decision he will find it very difficult indeed to persuade the local authorities that he is really in earnest with this policy, and even more difficult to persuade those of us in the amenity societies who have spent our lives trying to defend England from onslaughts of this kind.

8.15 p.m.


My Lords, as a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission and of the various societies which have objected to the demolition of these buildings I should like, very briefly in view of the lateness of the hour, to say why we did so. If one looks at these buildings now, boarded up, empty, suffering from a planning blight of many years, one may well wonder what the fuss is about; and one can well understand the views of local people, and indeed the local borough council, that the sooner these poor old things are decently removed the better. It would, of course, be quite wrong, as I am sure your Lordships would agree, to accept that view from that quarter alone. After all, the most lamentable and regrettable destruction in our historic town centres has nearly always been—has always been —with the consent of, and nearly always at the instigation of, the local authority.

These buildings that we are discussing this evening, as noble Lords have said, are not distinguished by conventional listing standards. The four in the Market Place that are most important and most effective are, first, the one on the corner, No. 11, which is a very solid and handsome mid-eighteenth century house of, I would say, considerable distinction. Next to it is what I have only once seen elsewhere South of the Trent, a curtain-wall building of the late nineteenth century in an English market town; one which I myself have often used when talking to students of examples of the fact that one does not have to use Cotswold stone in the Cotswolds. Next to that is a rather pompous Victorian mansion; and, fourthly, there is a little seventeenth-century public house, though no longer used as such. What these buildings have, my Lords, is character, diversity and a proper scale—qualities which commercial developers, the kind of people who will be developing this site, have found it so very difficult to achieve.

The noble Lord has told us that women with prams will benefit from the proposals of the Oxfordshire County Council, and I have no doubt that they will. I am told that there are at least two other ways of achieving this same result without touching No. 11, the corner building, which most people regard as the best of the four. I should like the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, to tell us, if he can, whether these alternatives are known to him and whether they have been investigated. But this is not the main point. The main point, clearly, as noble Lords have said, is that in a potential conservation area—and none could have greater potential than this, though it has not yet been mapped—no buildings, whether they are statutorily listed at the time or not, should be demolished except in the context of a plan.

My Lords, a few days ago I was reading the letters from India of Sir Patrick Geddes, whom we all regard as the founder of modern planning and I came across this little passage. Geddes wrote: The general level of civic thought and town planning knowledge amongst Government authorities and municipal bodies is well illustrated by a passage from a letter I have recently received from a distinguished civic servant, an engineer in charge of one of the most historic and beautiful cities in India. In acknowledging my report he regretfully explains that as both water and drainage schemes are in contemplation, the city must deny itself the luxury of town planning. That was fifty years ago, and of course we can all think of contemporary examples of what I regard as the great British vice of putting the part before the whole—not a vice in all fields, but a vice in the field of planning.

We have Stansted Airport. In my own county of Oxford we have proposals for a motorway across the Chiltern escarpment, necessary only because the Wycombe bypass has been brought to a position from which no further progress can be made except at the cost of one of the most beautiful landscapes in England, although only three miles along the ridge there is the Princes Risborough Gap, which a hundred years ago the Victorian engineers had the sense to use for the railway. We all know examples, from towns up and down the country, of buildings demolished or set back for highway improvements which have never had to be made and which are now precisely the opposite of what we all want to see.

I have gone up and down the country giving this simple message to civic societies and students—the cliché of planning: that survey must precede plan, and that a plan must precede any irrevocable action. In conveying this important but often unpopular message, we need all the support we can get. I know that everyone in my profession has come to regard the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, as a real leader in this field of conservation. I would merely ask him what has gone wrong in this case.

8.21 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Esher, has expressed with such skill, truth and charm the points which I should have wished to make that I shall do little more than formally support him. I agree that we could not have to reply to this debate a Minister of whose sympathy we are more sure than the noble Lord, Lord Kennet. I hope very much that he will find it possible, late though the hour is, to investigate whether there is this further possibility that the noble Viscount has suggested. There is nobody who knows the Oxfordshire countryside and towns better than he does.

I think that in the short interchange that took place last week, what must have struck everybody was the insanity of having a survey but doing the destruction first. There have been so many cases where people have seen the alternatives, in the interest of traffic, of either tearing some of the guts out of ancient places or making a bypass. In the end, invariably we have done both. Though it is realised that the only proper cure is a bypass, instead of making that bypass we first "improve" a town from the point of view of through-traffic by doing some destruction in it. It is never successful, and always disastrous.

I do not wish to say more to-night than to beg the noble Lord. Lord Kennet, to give the most careful consideration to the proposal made by the noble Viscount, Lord Esher, and to see whether it will be possible to preserve at least the most precious of the buildings concerned.

8.25 p.m.


My Lords, first of all, let me put some facts on the record about the detailed situation on the ground at Chipping Norton. I should like to get out of the way one or two misapprehensions. My noble friend Lord Chorley asked whether it was not possible for my right honourable friend the Minister to revoke the order in respect of these listed buildings. It ought not to be necessary for me to put right such a fundamental misconception. There are no listed buildings and there has been no order. My noble friend also made the point that since a by-pass was coming in three years, it was wrong to demolish any houses in this historic town. I do not know where he got the figure of three years. If a by-pass had been coming in three years, there would have been a different situation. Unfortunately, my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport is not able to say when he can slot the Chipping Norton by-pass into his programme. If he were to do so within three years, it would mean the unslotting of a by-pass in some other historic town, or town where there is risk of loss of life, and then we should have another debate in your Lordships' House on that.

May I also take a moment to correct a false impression which has arisen in the Press about the conservation study which it is the intention of Chipping Norton Borough Council to make? The noble Lord, Lord Molson, wrote to the Daily Telegraph complaining that my right honourable friend had abandoned his intention of withholding his consent to this demolition until the conservation study was made—made rather than undertaken. My noble friend Lord Chorley has raised the same point now about the difference between the conclusion and the inception of the conservation study. Either noble Lord could have picked up a telephone at any point and inquired from me about that. There was never any understanding between my right honourable friend or I and the local authorities concerned that the conservation study must be completed before this road widening project could go ahead. The understanding was that its inception must be undertaken within a definite period and, as I told the House last time we discussed this subject, the Oxfordshire County Council have now undertaken to do the conservation study this year.


My Lords, before my noble friend leaves that point, perhaps he will say what the purpose of a conservation study is, if it is not for purposes of this kind.


My Lords, it is to develop a canservation policy, and any Minister will naturally feel more inclined to retain his "say-so" over a given demolition or action if the local authority are not undertaking any study directed towards the formulation of a policy, than in cases where they are.

The street concerned, the corner of New Street and Market Place, has a carriageway 16 feet wide and pavements 2 feet wide. Over the last 10 years, there have been ten accidents, three of them serious and six of them involving pedestrians or cyclists. It is normal for commercial vehicles when passing one another to overhang those two-foot pavements and it is common for them to mount upon the pavements with their wheels. My right honourable friend and I have been advised by the highways authority that the continuation of this situation involves a concrete likelihood of death resulting. That is one given element.

On the other hand, we have a handful of houses—thirteen—which had been acquired by the local authority by agreement, and not by compulsory order, for the purpose of road widening. I think that there is no real question of redevelopment here. The noble Viscount, Lord Esher, made the point about the regrettable inability of modern developers to reproduce in proper scale and appearance houses common in our towns in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is not a case of redevelopment but of road widening. Of these thirteen houses, none is listed as being of historic or architectural interest on any statutory list.

I would repeat what I said in an interruption of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Molson. I regret that inadvertently I misinformed the House about this the other day, and said that one was. None is. The one is of listable quality, and that is No. 11 Market Place. It has not been listed because when there is active discussion about whether or not a building is to be demolished, and everybody is aware of the position, there is no particular point in listing if there is any possibility of demolition being permitted. Of the other 12—that is, apart from No. 11, which is of statutory quality—8 are on the supplementary list, which I would remind the House has no statutory force whatever: these are merely houses the existence of which is drawn to the attention of local planning authorities; the Minister has no power over them whatever, and the local authority has no special power over them whatever.

What does this mean in real terms? It means that all those houses, with the one exception of No. 11 Market Place, are below 110,000th place in the merit list of English houses. There are 110,000 houses on the statutory list, and these houses are below that place. So we are not dealing with anything of very great architectural or historic importance. The noble Viscount, Lord Esher, mentioned the presence of four houses in Market Place—and I think there may be some mistake here. It is only the corner house, No. 11, which has to come down. The others beyond it in Market Place do not have to come down for the purposes of road widening. Their future is somewhat indefinite, but they are not inevitably included in the road widening scheme.

The question before my right honourable friend—and I want to emphasise this to the House—was not a general one of whether or not to demolish the centre of Chipping Norton; it was not even the general one of whether or not to permit the demolition of the centre of Chipping Norton: it was whether or not he should take unusual emergency action to put No. 11 Market Place on the statutory list. If he had done so, it would have had the effect that the local authority would have had to seek his consent before demolishing in the interests of this road widening scheme; and he could, of course, no doubt after a public inquiry, have refused his consent. That is all that we are talking about now. He could not put any of the other 12 houses on the list, because his statutory advisers had told him that they were not worth it. They are not worthy of inclusion in the 110,000 best buildings in the country, and do not, therefore, merit any statutory protection whatever.

The terms of the Question, therefore, which refer to these houses, are not entirely in accordance with the situation. What we are talking about is one house, No. 11 Market Place. At this point my right honourable friend and I had to consider the lie of the land in general social terms, in terms of the general fabric of local authority and auto-determination. We found the County Council, the highway authority and the Borough Council, as an expression of local opinion within the town, unanimous and determined that the right course of action was to demolish the houses for the sake of the avoidance of a concrete risk to life in that street. That was a difficult situation to face, even given the existence of the circular which the noble Lord so eloquently quoted and with the drawing up of which I had something to do. When it comes to life against 13 non-listed houses, I, for one, know what I consider to be the right decision.

If the House will permit me, I should like for a moment to stand back and say that we are making rather heavy weather of what is a small matter. I believe—and I think this Government have the right to take credit for it—that there has been a transformation in private and public opinion and in our statutory arrangements about the preservation of buildings and towns of architectural and historic interest. I would remind the House that it is only eight years since the Euston Arch was demolished. This is the great shibboleth and paradigm of Philistine demolition in our century in London. It was not the present Government that did it. It is only eight years since the Coal Exchange in the City of London was demolished. Again, it was not this Government that did it. The noble Lord, Lord Molson—and I give him full credit for it—protested against those demolitions, against a Government of his own Party which did it—which in one case carried out the demolition, and in the other permitted it.

It was not this Government which set Sir Leslie Martin's terms of reference for his Whitehall plan, which included the understanding that the Foreign Office was to be demolished, so that he was not even empowered to consider that question. It was not this Government which reviewed the development plan for Bloomsbury in 1962 in terms which made inevitable the demolition of Woburn Square for the benefit of London University.

Returning to the scale of events at Chipping Norton, I would ask the House to remember that we are talking of 13 unlisted houses, one of which might be designated. It was not this Government which allowed the town of Gosport to demolish 105 of its 130 listed buildings in the ten years following 1955. I regret that some of these old decisions are still working through: there is nothing we can do to stop them, but there are not many left.

It was, on the other hand, this Government which doubled the number of investigators of buildings of historic and architectural interest from 8 to 16. It was this Government which increased the Historic Buildings Council moneys for the preservation of historic buildings by 20 per cent, in the middle of a major economic crisis. It was this Government which appointed the four consultants, of whom the noble Viscount, Lord Esher, is, in one sense, the first, to carry out conservation studies of four major historic cities. It was this Government which undertook a central Government responsibility to help people find uses for listed buildings by the creation of the Historic Buildings Bureau, to which all vendors and seekers of historic buildings have free access and the services of which are available free to all those. It was this Government which reactivated the forgotten powers under the Land Fund for central Government to acquire, restore and dispose of buildings of outstanding historic and architectural interest. It was this Government which found Parliamentary time for Mr. Duncan Sandys to introduce the Civil Amenities Bill, and which helped him to draft it—which he himself could have done when he was Minister of Housing and Local Government, but did not.

Lastly, it was this Government which introduced Part V of the recent Town and Country Planning Act, under which, for the first time, the owner of a listed building does not merely have to state his intention of demolishing it in such a way that if the letter goes astray he is virtually free to do so: he has to have express permission from the planning authority, and behind them the Minister, if they are in doubt, to do so. I would remind the House that this Part V of the Town and Country Planning Act 1968 introduces a veritable revolution in the protection of our ancient buildings, in that we now have a situation where local authorities can compel the owners to repair, and if they do not they can purchase the buildings; and if is is proved that the owner has been deliberately neglecting them for the sake of profit on the site, the authorities can purchase them, minus the development value.

If I may return for a moment to Chipping Norton, I think all Members of the House will agree that we cannot preserve everything over a hundred years old. The question then arises: in what circumstances should we refrain from preserving something more than a hundred years old if it looks nice? I myself think that we should refrain from doing this when there is a risk of people being killed. That is when one abandons one's desire to preserve everything. And in this case there was such a risk. In future cases there may again be such a risk, and I cannot undertake to the House that in such cases I will take, or advise my right honourable friend to take, a decision any different from that which he took this time.

Lastly, my Lords, I am not defending the decision of the Oxfordshire County Council. It is their method; it was their decision. There is very hot feeling on both sides about it. What I am saying is that this was not a case in which the Minister should have intervened, or should have used his statutory power over one house on the corner to frustrate the considered decision of local democracy in this matter. To have done so would have been to set a clamorous precedent towards detailed and dubious intervention in the web of local democracy, on which, I would remind the House, all our attempts to preserve what is best in our heritage must in the last resort depend.